Writing about Out of the Past late Roger Ebert wrote a classical line: “There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.” Nothing could be truer than this. It’s a magic of old Hollywood, whence cigarettes were manly and people wore shoulders beneath those trench coats. They don’t make them as they used to and overreaching political correctness isn’t even the main cause. One could look silly today trying to pull Robert Mitchum. To Mitchum it came naturally, of course. And no one could replace him quite as well since.
Jacques Tourneur’s movie is what you call a classic. If you take notice of these things you could see why this is so in an instant. Every genre-trope is here, everything that has throughout these decades been distilled in countless movies derives from Tourneur’s imagery and Daniel Mainwaring’s lines. Out of the past wasn’t really a groundbreaking movie (except for Mitchum), it came too late for that (noir of the thirties already conquered everything that was to conquer within this paradigm), still it managed to do what many tried but very few achieved – it managed to attain that iconic status reserved only for the best. Much of the credit goes to the chemistry of Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, but suave Kirk Douglas (he’ll build his iconic look later in Spartacus) deserves more than a mention as well. Still, despite of everything, I couldn’t look at it quite seriously.
Yes, Out of the past is noir which basically means that we know the fate of all our characters as soon as they are introduced. Rest of the movie is just sort of getting there. The artifice lies not within the script (which follows the pre-ordained structure, one might think of it as a fate in almost a Greek-tragedy sense), it lies within the form. This is one of the reason why Out of the past managed to remain classic up to these days. Countless movies have repeated the same script-structure but very few of them managed to repeat Greer-Mitchum-Douglas triangle (or photography of Nicholas Musuraca). Yet (and this always bothered me in every narrative that remained faithful to any genre), bits and pieces of the ‘40s show their head every now and then and while they’re not really strange or off-putting (as they can be) they are somewhat silly when seen from today’s perspective.
Yes, we know that Mitchum won’t make it in the end (this would be against the core of noir) but we’re not really sure until he kisses Jane Greer on their reunion. Movie morals of the ‘40s can’t defend this adulterous action, however justifiable its cause might be. Then there is the final scene in the car where Jane Greer pulls out a pistol from her purse and delivers a fatal kiss (in a manner of true femme fatale) to Mitchum. Forties come in play here too. The character that has been fairly rational up to that point, the character which has successfully played a hard game with big boys, suddenly fails to bury his elbow into the dame’s face, breaking her nose and knocking her unconscious, just because you can’t do that to a woman. Sure, you can slap her around (every man of that age found this perfectly justifiable especially when forced to deal with women’s histrionics), you can shoot her if you’re a police officer stopping a fugitive, but you can’t hit her like you would hit a man. It just isn’t done. Mainwaring observed these rules and in return they provided him with an opportunity to nicely wrap his movie as he was supposed to do. Unnoticed moral of the story, well – unnoticed to the people of the ‘40s at least, is that tragedy can unfold only if one blindly follows societal and ideological rules.
Since we somehow managed to dispose of these idiotic concepts (though we introduced more than a couple of new ones, especially in the script-writing department), they tend to stand out as anachronisms. Sure, they would be anachronistic if they were to be used in this day and age but in the age of Out of the past they were quite standard. This cultural discrepancy breaks the spell of the big screen and it forces us to see this movie as an artifice instead experiencing it as a pseudo-reality. This was accessible to the people of post-WWII USA. To us, Out of the past is something out of the past. While there’s some might heavy longing for the golden age (whatever this might be) out there, one can be sane enough to see that this particular past doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Oh, it’s a more stylish age for sure, but better? – not by a longshot.
|Directed by||Jacques Tourneur|
|Produced by||Warren Duff|
|Screenplay by||Daniel Mainwaring|
|Based on||Build My Gallows High
by Daniel Mainwaring
|Music by||Roy Webb|
|Edited by||Samuel E. Beetley|
|RKO Radio Pictures|